It is a little known fact that the tide of the Peloponnesian War was turned by ponies.
Ok, that is perhaps a bit of an overstatement, but as the Athenians would discover in their utterly disastrous invasion of Sicily, 1200 ponies would bring an invasion force of 45,000 to its ruin.
The war with the Spartans had been going for seventeen grueling years. Despite losing a quarter of its population to a plague, suffering numerous setbacks on both land and sea and expending incalculable amounts of money and manpower in the conflict, Athens had still survived. A dramatic capture of some of Sparta’s elite hoplites had even ensured that the annual incursions into Attica had ceased, leading to a somewhat tenuous peace.
In many ways, Athens was even on the road to recovery, as the horror of the plague began to subside from memory and a rising generation of Athenians looked to a future where the empire could perhaps be extended. Things were not at their worst- Athens still had relative mastery of the seas as the Spartans had yet to be able to enlist Persian support for a fleet to match their enemies, and the relative time of peace had given Athens the chance to replant their crops, refit their armies and rebuild their fleets. Prosperity was not where it had been at the beginning of the war, but seventeen years later many felt the time was ripe for things to turn around.
800 Miles to Disaster
The island of Sicily became the locus of the Athenians’ ambitions, even though it was hundreds of miles away. While it is unclear exactly why the Athenians chose such an ambitious target, there are several reasons why they would ultimately commit so many resources to the endeavor and why it would prove so disastrous.
Geographically, Sicily was positioned in such a way that whoever controlled it would have easy access to Italy and and North Africa. For the ambitious in Athens, such an acquisition could prove valuable to making future extensions of the empire into these wealthy and resource-laden areas.
Sicily is also quite verdant, especially when one contrasts it with the Attican hinterland. Grain supplies were ever in need, and having an additional supply would be a great boon for Athens. Sicily was also supplying the Spartans with grain, so controlling the grain routes would be a major blow to the enemy.
There was also the question of money. Syracuse, the major city of Sicily, was at least as large and as rich as Athens, and many felt that a successful campaign would bring in large quantities of plunder and booty, something that Athens was always in need of to maintain her fleets and her armies.
It is within this context that Athens decided to mount an invasion of Syracuse in 416. In their first excursion they sent around 25000 troops, a huge expenditure of manpower and ships. Miraculously, they arrived without serious delays or losses and prepared for the overthrow of Sicily.
However, the Athenian leadership was hesitant, and instead of attacking Syracuse immediately they spent the next several months establishing a forward base. The difficulty they would face is what any attacking force far from home faces- no immanent reinforcements, all food and water must be scavenged from the countryside which detracts from the purpose of the invasion, and constant threats of hostile raids and attacks by an enemy who knows the terrain better than the invaders. The Athenians would live (and die) to regret their hesitation.
That brings us to ponies. On the Grecian mainland, horses were only about four and a half feet tall, and only the wealthy had them. (Most Greek adult males at this time were about 5′ 2″.) In an era before horseshoes, the relatively rocky ground of Attica was not an ideal realm for horses, as one stumble or missed step could ruin an animal who was worth more than year’s wages.
Nor was horsemanship an easy task. While even in the modern world it takes years to master the art of horseback riding, in the ancient world there were no stirrups or saddles. The rider had to spend years learning how to properly grip the horse with his legs, maintain his balance as well as direct the animal. Falling off of a horse was a sort of running one among playwrights.
For military service it took even more years of training to be able to control a horse properly and use a weapon effectively. Most riders were lightly armored, rode without a shield and carried only a small sword and a javelin. For a cavalryman, speed was the name of the game. Against hoplites who were weighed down with seventy pounds of armor, he could be a particularly effective foe. Among the elite of horsemen were those who could handle a bow and arrow from horseback, a particularly terrorizing prospect for a bronze armor laden hoplite.
Yet the Athenians and Spartans generally spurned cavalry as a major component of their conventional warfare. It is notable that even the wealthy who had horses would often leave them behind, don their bronze armor and join the phalanx with a sense of pride. While both employed cavalry units in a limited fashion, it wasn’t until Syracuse that the Athenians would fully realize the importance of the pony.
As Sicily is flatter and less rocky than Attica, the Syracusans had a long developed tradition of deploying cavalry units in their military expeditions. They were perhaps unrivaled except for the Boeotians in this regard. As the Athenian forces arrived, Syracuse was able to marshall a force of 1200 cavalry units that would effectively stifle Athen’s plans for conquest.
Once Athens committed its forces to Syracuse, the first task was to besiege the city. Athens was actually quite effective at sieges, but the hope was (much as Sparta had hoped at the very beginning of the war) that by ravaging the countryside and cutting off Syracuse’s access to supplies by a naval blockade they could force a hoplite engagement outside the walls of the city and bring the whole thing to close quickly. Their plan fared no better than the Spartan’s and would lead to utter disaster.
The majority of the Athenian and allied forces were the typical hoplite phalanx supported by light infantry, archers and slingers. These proved mostly ineffective because of the Syracusan calvary force. The 1200 mounted horsemen were able to so effectively harass and harangue the less mobile Athenians that the siege became somewhat of a living terror. Walls had to be built, food had to be scavenged. The Syracusan cavalry was basically able to paralyze a force over eighteen times its size, giving Syracuse the opportunity to build counter walls. Had they not been so effective at keeping the Athenians at bay, the result would most likely have been quite different.
The Athenians realized they needed horses, but getting horses was not easy. They were expensive, they needed experienced riders, and they needed to be transported 800 miles. That meant re-outfitting triremes to become cargo vessels, which entailed sending more ships to serve as escorts. All of this was a huge expenditure for a campaign that was already depleting the city’s funds. Yet Athens managed to cobble together some 650 horses to send to Sicily, along with thousands of infantrymen and hoplites.
The immediate result was positive, as the cavalry units were able to give the siege builders cover, so much so that fighting even ensued on the heights of the city, beginning a plodding race to build walls and counter walls. Unfortunately for the Athenians, their leadership was equally plodding and hesitant. They allowed both a Corinthian fleet to resupply Syracuse as well as Peloponnesian reinforcements to arrive. To add to the injury, the Athenian fleet had been in blockade for so long that its ships had begun to deteriorate and essentially became useless for either a blockade or, more importantly, to even get home.
The Beginning of the End
The breaking of Athens’ invasion of Sicily came down to a massive naval battle outside the Great Harbor of Syracuse. The already waterlogged and weary Athenian ships were designed for open water engagements, and in such circumstances were generally victorious. The Syracusan and Corinthian navies forced the battle in the more limited waters of the harbor, and the more maneuverable ships of the Corinthians and Syracusans were able to route the Athenian navy.
For the Athenian troops watching the battle from the shore, the shock must have been overwhelming. Not only had they seen their countrymen perish under the waves, but with them their only way home. Now nearly 45,000 Athenians and their allies found themselves trapped in hostile territory with nowhere to run. And run they did.
The Syracusan cavalry was merciless in their pursuit and slaughter. The Athenians retreated, but found themselves cut down on all sides by a much faster and agile foe. The confusion and bedlam was beyond description, perhaps matched only by the despair of an inevitable end in a foreign land. Many met their end at the Assinarus River, cut down in the muck and the mire that perhaps provided a fitting epitaph for such a ruinous endeavor. Over 45,000 troops, sailors and slaves either died, were captured, sold into slavery or simply disappeared.
Athens had gone all in with its gamble for Syracuse, and nearly lost everything.
All because of some ponies.